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2015 Charlotte Street Foundation Visual Artist Awards
October 24 - December 16
H&R Block Artspace, Kansas City, MO

Text for the exhibition written by Kelly Shindler, Associate Curator at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

There is an ambivalence to Misha Kligman’s art particularly well suited to whatever he paints. From early allusions to the Holocaust and geopolitical despotism to memento mori and indeterminate landscapes, his swarthy canvases maintain a somber critical distance that befits their futile task of depicting, or at least addressing, historical trauma and our unfortunate penchant to forget. Kligman’s works brood over their own inadequacy through bruised palettes, flat picture planes, and an often aggressively large scale (measuring as large as 6 by 7 feet). When they do feature a figure, its contours are never fully defined, receding instead into the background to produce a ghostly effect. Even landscapes, which have become the primary focal point of Kligman’s practice over the last several years, exhibit trepidation. A series of Untitled landscapes from the Threshold series (2014) collapses into near-abstraction, their marks sanded down into dedifferentiated color fields of black, purple, red, and yellow. It comes as no surprise, then, that recent works have featured bridges, rafts, staircases, and railroad tracks, among other signifiers of passage and transition. For Kligman’s is a restless practice in continual flux. It questions the potential for an image (and therefore a painting) to ever cohere in its address of the ineffable.

More recently, Kligman’s work has marked a shift from the external world into an altogether more personal space. He has taken up this subject before, albeit from a historical prompt—the artist grew up in Kazan, Russia, and emigrated to the United States with his family when he was 17, settling in Cleveland upon arrival. His early works in the Mouthful of Silence (2009) and Scent of Time (2010) seriesconfronted the legacy of historical trauma, a subject that held personal resonance for the artist and his family. The landscape paintings in the Threshold (2013) and Without (2014) series that followed also connect to the notion of bearing witness. In this sense, they recall the work of Anselm Kiefer, Sally Mann, Richard Mosse, Zarina Bhimji, and others who imbue landscapes with a charged sense of remembrance.

Kligman’s new paintings for the Charlotte Street Foundation Visual Artist Awards bring figure and landscape together, juxtaposing these visual strategies to articulate a number of formal and conceptual tensions. Drawing from the artist’s own experience of becoming a father, the paintings play on the push-pull of aloofness and sentimentality in the recognition of one’s own mortality that accompanies parenthood. Two of the works feature part-objects—a pair of hands, a pair of feet—while the other two present full portraits of a woman and a boy (the artist’s wife and young son), their faces turned either fully or partially away from the viewer. To make them, Kligman worked straight on the canvas, painting in part from photographs he had taken. The immediacy of such direct painting is palpable in the sketchiness of the landscape-backgrounds. Here, landscape for Kligman is no longer a primary narrative or thematic device but rather a classic foreground/background painterly strategy to hold, or perhaps catch, the floating figure. The final works, suspended in a state of unfinish, are brazenly awkward. Hands grasp, feet inch forward, a woman looks toward the future, a boy dreams. Each elicits the space of memory. Commenting on a recent body of work, Kligman offered that his paintings “are hopeful in a sense that maybe a painting can be more than an object but a kind of place where the past and future collide, in the process revealing that which is most hidden—our present.” The works in this exhibition martial this hopefulness through an almost Brechtian pictorial staging that denotes a sophisticated art practice—and a life—deep in progress.

Installation images curtesy of H&R Block Artspace and E.G. Schempf


oil on canvas, 72"x84", 2015

Not YetNot Yet

oil on canvas, 72"x84", 2015

Goodnight NobodyGoodnight Nobody

oil on canvas, 84"x72", 2015